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Establishing meaningful contacts with children and youth

Henry W. Maier
This fast moving workshop served to introduce knowledge from research in human development, applicable to child and youth care work. Conceptual input was brought to life by illustrative examples applied to care work as well as by the instructor's modeling; intermittently, workshop participants also tried out this material. The overall learning objective was to have the workshop participants gain an awareness of the personal and detailed facets of human interactions (Maier, 1987).

Actually, much of the workshop content presented in this paper seems to be commonplace knowledge; but more likely than not it is "wisdom" easily disregarded in the heat and luster of either bureaucratic or professional care and treatment efforts. The following ten interconnected points involve practice actions well-grounded in recent human development research findings. (Each of these ten factors are more fully expanded in the instructor's current publication (Maier, 1987).

1. Body Comfort
In initial and subsequent contacts between persons, in crisis-prone situations, and other potentially impactful encounters, attention to the other person's body comfort is paramount. As the individual's body is made comfortable, so does he or she feel welcome. It is important to attend to physical comfort, to see to it that the other person has a kind of supportive spatial arrangement and also a sense of anchorage. These factors are more decisive than any welcoming smile or well-meant verbal greetings (Maier, 1978; 1979, pp. 162164; 1987, chp. 1, 3).

2. Predictiveness
All new encounters or important meetings enliven anxiety because such social encounters typically reflect situations with no previous norms for conduct. Consequently, the absence of potentially guiding norms make variant degrees of anxiety a natural factor. Also, a getting together usually contains considerable ambiguity. This ambiguity usually increases a person's anxiety. If much of such ambiguity can be reduced, it will widen the span of predictiveness (and also reduce anxiety). Therefore, it is facilitating to let an individual know how long, for what, and in which way one wants to interact with her or him in order to assure for both parties a sense of predictiveness. For example, instead of calling to Mary: "Mary come over here, please; I want to ask you something," rather: "Mary, I would like to learn from you what you think of your new teacher. Let's step to the window over here for a 5 minute chat!" (Ainsworth, F., 1987; Maier, 1978; 1987, chap. 1).

3. To Put One's Face In
In new encounters, persons are judged for their totality and their specific variation from others. They are initially noted for their personal qualities rather than their role performance. A care worker needs to invest energy to make the clients experience that attention is directed to them. Additionally, if the recipient feels titillated by this encounter with the care worker, so much the better! This kind of interchange is facilitated by meeting the other person with a statement rather than a question. For example, in place of "What is your name?", it is decidedly more connecting to state: "My name is --; I wonder what I shall call you!" Most important, workers need to be interesting for their appearance and for things readily available in their pockets for play or other form of potential interactions. Care workers have to come across as persons rather than as agents of a program (Maier, 1987, Introduction, chap. 1, 2; Tronick, 1980).

4. Connectiveness
Establishing meaningful contacts requires energy-laden outreach as well as time and space for the persons who await connections. It is essential that time is allowed to incorporate the interactive experience step-by-step. This means repeated pauses in verbal input, in the exchange of eye contacts, and in the nature of physical and spatial approachment (Maier, 1987, Introduction, chap. 1, 2; Tronick, 1980).

5. Dealing with the Response (Reaction) Rather Than One's Input
In the search for rapport with another person it is especially relevant to address the response to the input rather than pursuing one's own verbal or action statement. For instance, after calling the youngsters to come indoors, it is important to deal with their response to the call rather than repeating the summons -- e.g., "I noticed you're looking away. I know that you want to stay out longer. I don't blame you, however, I expect you in pronto!" In other words, the focus has to be on what people do after one's input, rather than with a preoccupation with what people do not do. A focus upon a person's reactions gives new understanding to the ongoing interaction and situation and a possible hint how to proceed. Attending to what a person doesn't do merely reflects the observer's own wishes and frustration without providing direction toward what could be done (Kobak, 1979; Lerner & Busch-Rossnagel, 1981; Maier, 1987, chap. I, 2, 3, 4).

6. Rhythmicity
Joint rhythmicity, as a whole new branch of psychology, brings to the child and youth care fields powerful new findings with regard to human interactions (Davis, 1982). Rhythmic interactions tend to connect people; they create a sense of genuine togetherness. The facilitation of rhythmic interactions such as a mere rhythmic greeting (handshake, hug, or nod), a joint rhythmic tapping, wrestling or dancing, mutually tossing a frisbee — all comprise the groundwork for eventual personal connectiveness and a form of "bonding" (Brazelton, 1977; Davis, 1982; Maier, 1981, pp. 20-28; 1987, chap. 1,2).

7. Attachment and Attachment Behaviors
People need in their lives, one or several persons with whom they can be intimately attached. Such attachments may vary in degree. There is no one attachment but rather it is a process which is in continuous need of "nourishment." Whenever a person feels his or her attachment to be endangered, interrupted, threatened, or a person simply wishes to strengthen the attachment, the individual then engages in attachment behaviors (reaching out, clinging behaviors, etc.). Attachment behaviors serve to enhance attachment and have to be seen as such within the context of attachment sustenance. Consequently, attachment behaviors are salient in the establishment and maintenance of meaningful contacts; they have to be nourished as far as realistically possible. This approach is quite in contrast to earlier understandings in the child care fields. Formerly, the focus was upon the "separation dilemma." Attachment behaviors were viewed as "attention-getting devices" and undesirable. The aspect of attachment itself, as a natural spin-off, was not scientifically established until more recently (Ainsworth, M.D., 1978; Brazelton, 1977; Sable, 1979; Sroufe, 1978; Maier, 1987, chap. 1, 2, 4).

8. Transitional Objects
When people move from one vital situation or home base to another, they tend to take with them an article which is of particular significance to them. This may be an object which has had special pleasurable meaning in an earlier life situation. As Linus has his blanket, so do children or youth have their old stuffed toys or, more likely, a remnant of it. Older youngsters may have an old "faithful", well-worn sweatshirt, jacket, or hat. Such items are endowed with poignant memories and sustaining power; to an outsider they may appear as unattractive, possibly smelly and perhaps ready for discarding. It is obvious, then, that these items are essential for their owners in moments of difficult transitions. Effective care work has to utilize this awareness and urge youngsters (and previous care-givers) to be sure to bring along favoured objects, however worn and tattered they might be (Maier, 1981, p. 39; Maier, 1987, chap. 1, 2; Winnicott, 1965).

9. Private Space
Private space in terms of one's bed, locker, drawer or even a mere shoebox, is essential to assure an individual that she or he is a person in her or his own rights. Private space means a physical "corner" in one's ongoing life over which the individual has absolute control, arranging one's own possession without outside interference. Essential to establishing meaningful contacts with children or youth is the worker's recognition and assurance of "private turf' for each youngster, acknowledging the significance of an individual's personal possessions. Typical of these are bed, clothing, and other paramount extensions of a person's "self'; they represent essential and sensitive care features (Bakker & Bakker-Rabdau, 1973; Maier 1987, chap. 1, 2, 8; Mahrabian, 1976; Sivadon, 1970).

10. Quickies
This item might appear a strange suggestion in this row of key interaction suggestions yet it is an important one. In the early phase of becoming acquainted, persons tend to be immediately judged, particularly by youth and children, for what the person can do for them, for the enrichment of their lives. A worker's outreach is largely enriched by the worker's capacity to introduce a range of quick action activities such as thumb-wrestling, finger rhythm games, tongue twisters, puzzle questions, or other quick but engaging tricks. They make the worker interesting and a person who might have something to offer. These "quickies" have to be activities which do not require preparation, explanation, or props. These are interplay activities which can be initiated as well as terminated on the spot. Such "quickies" are most handy for such awkward moments as waiting, meaningful dawdling periods, or for just meeting individuals with the hope of rapidly finding social, personal connections (Maier, 1987, chap. 1).

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Maier, H. Establishing meaningful contacts with children and youth. Journal of Child Care, Spring 1998

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